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Usually when a team realizes the axe is hanging over their current era, one of the first questions that circulates is about the coaching. So far, though, as perhaps you’ve noticed, the spotlight has been on Dwight Howard and almost nothing else. Perhaps this is because the Magic are in sort of a bizarre situation with Stan Van Gundy, by all reasonable accounts a top five coach whose teams perennially overachieve but whose lack of mystical machismo or good suits has led to his being underappreciated.
We know two things, though: the Magic will be a completely different team within a year’s time, and it would be pure lunacy not to have SVG usher the team through the transition. Because it is fun to think about things like this, and because it is instructive to examine the coaching situation to figure out how the Magic will operate, I want to imagine what a rebuilding team helmed by SVG would look like.
At his only other professional head coaching stop, Van Gundy took over a Heat team that was in a weird place. This was before Dwyane Wade was really Dwyane Wade (who, despite a strong postseason, posted just a 17.6 PER on the year), and what little talent the Heat had meshed so poorly the team had won 25 games the year before. In Van Gundy’s first year, the Heat — just to recap, with a rookie star and only one other player whose PER was higher than 17 — won 42 games and gave the team with most wins in the league, the Pacers, a bear of a second round series. This is Van Gundy’s most “rebuilding” year and, given that the Heat were just two seasons away from a title afterward, I think it’s safe to call it an unmitigated success.
As the coach of the Magic, Van Gundy has demonstrated two things that I think would make him an ideal coach for a rebuilding team: a commitment to defense, and a willingness to play unorthodox ball to cater to his players’ strengths and limitations. Young players (remember those?) were developed as role players and given increased responsibilities as their skills developed, and under Van Gundy, this development has been rapid. Think about the fact that Courtney Lee went from being a non-lottery pick who was a spot player to having a play drawn up for him to beat the Lakers in the Finals — this is a coach who knows how to bring players along while negotiating their growing abilities and roles. You can see this time and again in Orlando, and nowhere more clearly than with Dwight Howard.
Back when Dwight was regularly eating people’s lunches with a fairly unrefined offensive game, the Magic had a system built around taking advantage of the mismatch his physique created, creating one of the league’s most efficient offenses and a defense that funneled suckers into the Howard buzzsaw. Now, though, Howard is — forget what you heard — one of the league’s most efficient post players, with a number of go-to moves most of the league would kill to have their center develop.
What we’ve seen then, is that Van Gundy can: develop a team around a young perimeter player, develop a team around a young post player, always play killer defense, and win. No losing seasons, and he coached a team that still featured a thing called Bimbo Coles.
I’m led to conclude, then, that the best thing I could say about a rebuilding Van Gundy team is that I have no idea what it would look like. He has demonstrated tremendous flexibility in the style he is willing to coach and has maintained an emphasis on two-way play in every scenario. I could give this dude Anthony Davis, Harrison Barnes, and a Dodge Neon filled with Tickle-Me Elmos and the dude could get the Neon an open layup. What you want when you face an uncertain future is a coach who has repeatedly found form in relative chaos, and Van Gundy has done that.
But wait, I hear you say, what of the bugaboo that Dwight is not always happy with Stan Van Gundy? What of all those comments where Dwight suggests that he’s happy with Stan only to say that the coach needs to change his style of communicating? Basically, I would lovingly say to Dwight that his concerns are hogswallow.
I’ve discussed before how Van Gundy differs in his approach from other elite coaches, and if he has a weakness, it is perhaps that he is too keenly aware of his player’s limitations to allow them to be exploited. On the court, this is a good thing, but for a player of considerable talent, I can see it being frustrating.
Think about it: most elite coaches run some sort of offensive system, and it is almost unfailingly broken by the team’s stars. The message: I am willing to accept some degree of shenanigans — wild drives, bad shots, jaw posture which suggests a need for orthodontia — because your talent will make up the difference. You can’t really say this about a Van Gundy player. Dudes can’t dribble? They spot up. Dwight can’t shoot free throws? He doesn’t get crunch time touches. Van Gundy, an exacting coach who caters to what his players can do, seemingly denies players the free reign so many other coaches appear to be tolerating. I can certainly imagine that a player like Howard feels like he is playing Van Gundy Ball and that this prevents the universe from experiencing the beauty of Dwight Ball. The problem with this is that Van Gundy Ball is the reason Dwight was never quadruple teamed, it is the reason Rashard Lewis was almost worth the second-worst contract in the league, and it is the reason a non-lottery rookie almost stole a game from the Lakers.
Further, I can’t imagine this being nearly so much a concern with the kind of team that the Magic are likely to have — young, unproven players — and it is almost wholly mitigated by the fact that no player drafted to a Stan Van Gundy team has experienced a losing season.
All told, when the smoke clears on this season, I know Stan is the guy I’ll want on the sideline.